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The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives [Anglais] [Broché]

Lajos Egri

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Description de l'ouvrage

17 mai 2004
Lajos Egri examines a play from the inside out, starting with the heart of any drama: its characters. For it is people - their private natures and their inter-relationships - that move a story and give it life. All good dramatic writing depends upon an understanding of human motives. Why do people act as they do? What forces transform a coward into a hero, a hero into a coward? What is it that Romeo does early in Shakespeare's play that makes his later suicide seem inevitable? Why must Nora leave her husband at the end of A Doll's House?
These are a few of the fascinating problems which Egri analyzes. He shows how it is essential for the author to have a basic premise - a thesis, demonstrated in terms of human behaviour - and to develop his dramatic conflict on the basis of that behaviour. Premise, character, conflict: this is Egri's ABC. His book is a direct, jargon-free approach to the problem of achieving truth in a literary creation.

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Chapter I


A man sits in his workshop, busy with an invention of wheels and springs. You ask him what the gadget is, what it is meant to do. He looks at you confidingly and whispers: "I really don't know."

Another man rushes down the street, panting for breath. You intercept him and ask where he is going. He gasps: "How should I know where I'm going? I am on my way."

Your reaction -- and ours, and the world's -- is that these two men are a little mad. Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination.

Yet, fantastic as it seems, this simple necessity has not made itself felt to any extent in the theater. Reams of paper bear miles of writing -- all of it without any point at all. There is much feverish activity, a great deal of get-up-and-go, but no one seems to know where he is going.

Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there.

We may not succeed in proving each tiny premise, but that in no way alters the fact that there was one we meant to prove. Our attempt to cross the room may be impeded by an unobserved footstool, but our premise existed nevertheless.

The premise of each second contributes to the premise of the minute of which it is part, just as each minute gives its bit of life to the hour, and the hour to the day. And so, at the end, there is a premise for every life.

Webster's International Dictionary says:

Premise: a proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument. A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion.

Others, especially men of the theater, have had different words for the same thing: theme, thesis, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving force, subject, purpose, plan, plot, basic emotion.

For our own use we choose the word "premise" because it contains all the elements the other words try to express and because it is less subject to misinterpretation.

Ferdinand Brunetière demands a "goal" in the play to start with. This is premise.

John Howard Lawson: "The root-idea is the beginning of the process." He means premise.

Professor Brander Matthews: "A play needs to have a theme." It must be the premise.

Professor George Pierce Baker, quoting Dumas the Younger: "How can you tell what road to take unless you know where you are going?" The premise will show you the road.

They all mean one thing: you must have a premise for your play.

Let us examine a few plays and see whether they have premises.

Romeo and Juliet

The play starts with a deadly feud between two families, the Capulets and the Montagues. The Montagues have a son, Romeo, and the Capulets a daughter, Juliet. The youngsters' love for each other is so great that they forget the traditional hate between their two families. Juliet's parents try to force her to marry Count Paris, and, unwilling to do this, she goes to the good friar, her friend, for advice. He tells her to take a strong sleeping draught on the eve of her wedding which will make her seemingly dead for forty-two hours. Juliet follows his advice. Everyone thinks her dead. This starts the onrushing tragedy for the two lovers. Romeo, believing Juliet really dead, drinks poison and dies beside her. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead, without hesitation she decides to unite with him in death.

This play obviously deals with love. But there are many kinds of love. No doubt this was a great love, since the two lovers not only defied family tradition and hate, but threw away life to unite in death. The premise, then, as we see it is: "Great love defies even death."

King Lear

The King's trust in his two daughters is grievously misplaced. They strip him of all his authority, degrade him, and he dies insane, a broken, humiliated old man.

Lear trusts his oldest daughters implicitly. Because he believes their glittering words, he is destroyed.

A vain man believes flattery and trusts those who flatter him. But those who flatter cannot be trusted, and those who believe the flatterers are courting disaster.

It seems, then, that "Blind trust leads to destruction" is the premise of this play.


Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in their ruthless ambition to achieve their goal, decide to kill King Duncan. Then, to strengthen himself in his position, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo, whom he fears. Later, he is forced to commit still more murders in order to entrench himself more securely in the position he has reached through murder. Finally, the nobles and his own subjects become so aroused that they rise against him, and Macbeth perishes as he lived -- by the sword. Lady Macbeth dies of haunting fear.

What can be the premise of this play? The question is, what is the motivating force? No doubt it is ambition. What kind of ambition? Ruthless, since it is drenched in blood. Macbeth's downfall was foreshadowed in the very method by which he achieved his ambition. So, as we see, the premise for Macbeth is: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."


Othello finds Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's lodging. It had been taken there by Iago for the very purpose of making him jealous. Othello therefore kills Desdemona and plunges a dagger into his own heart.

Here the leading motivation is jealousy. No matter what caused this green-eyed monster to raise its ugly head, the important thing is that jealousy is the motivating force in this play, and since Othello kills not only Desdemona but himself as well, the premise, as we see it, is: "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love."


The basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation which is the premise: "The sins of the fathers are visited on the children." Every word uttered, every move made, every conflict in the play, comes about because of this premise.


Here the author obviously wants to show and prove that "Poverty encourages crime." He does.


A ruthless young man who yearns for fame as an actor makes love to the daughter of a rich man; she contracts a venereal disease. The young man finds an aging actress who supports him in exchange for love-making. His downfall comes when he is castrated by a mob driven by the girl's father. For this play the premise is: "Ruthless ambition leads to destruction."

Juno and the Paycock, BY SEAN O'CASEY

Captain Boyle, a shiftless, boastful drinker, is told that a rich relative died and left him a large sum of money, which will shortly be paid to him. Immediately Boyle and his wife, Juno, prepare themselves for a life of ease: they borrow money from neighbors on the strength of the coming inheritance, buy gaudy furniture, and Boyle spends large sums on drink. It later develops that the inheritance will never come to them, because the will was worded vaguely. The angry creditors descend on them and strip the house. Woe piles on woe: Boyle's daughter, having been seduced, is about to have a baby; his son is killed, and his wife and daughter leave him. At the end, Boyle has nothing left; he has hit bottom.

Premise: "Shiftlessness leads to ruin."

Shadow and Substance,

Thomas Skeritt, canon in a small Irish community, refuses to admit that his servant, Bridget, has really seen visions of Saint Bridget, her patron saint. Thinking her mentally deranged, he tries to send her away on a vacation and, above all, refuses to perform a miracle which, according to the servant, Saint Bridget requests of him. In trying to rescue a school-master from an angry crowd, Bridget is killed, and the canon loses his pride before the girl's pure, simple faith.

Premise: "Faith conquers pride."

We are not sure that the author of Juno and the Paycock knew that his premise was "Shiftlessness leads to ruin." The son's death, for instance, has nothing to do with the main concept of the drama. Sean O'Casey has excellent character studies, but the second act stands still because he had only a nebulous idea to start his play with. That is why he missed writing a truly great play.

Shadow and Substance, on the other hand, has two premises. In the first two acts and the first three quarters of the last act, the premise is: "Intelligence conquers superstition." At the end, suddenly and without warning, "intelligence" of the premise changes to "faith," and "superstition" to "pride." The canon -- the pivotal character -- changes like a chameleon into something he was not a few moments before. The play becomes muddled in consequence.

Every good play must have a well-formulated premise. There may be more than one way to phrase the premise, but, however it is phrased, the thought must be the same.

Playwrights usually get an idea, or are struck by an unusual situation, and decide to write a play around it.

The question is whether that idea, or that situation, provides sufficient basis for a play. Our answer is no, although we are aware that out of a thousand playwrights, nine hundred and ninety-nine start this way.

No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.

If you have no such premise, you may modify, elaborate, vary your original idea or situation, or even lead yourself into another situation, but you will not know where you are going. You will flounder, rack your brain to invent further situations to round out your play. You may find these situations -- and you will still be without a play.

You must have a premise -- a premise which will lead you unmistakably to t...

Revue de presse

Moss Hart I found Lajos Egri's book enormously interesting -- one of the best I have ever read.

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Couverture | Copyright | Table des matières | Extrait | Index | Quatrième de couverture
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71 internautes sur 74 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Chock full of drama goodies 22 avril 2005
Par E. VONROTHKIRCH - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat authentifié par Amazon
What Lajos Egri will show you:

* Formulate your premise. Premise is a statement, idea, or conviction that your story proves true. For example, the premise of Romeo and Juliet would be something like "Love defies even death."

* Choose a pivotal character who will force the conflict.

* Orchestrate the other characters. The unity of opposites must be binding. Polar opposites must form a dialectic which creates a unified tension.

* Be careful to select the correct point of attack. Every point of attack starts with conflict.

* There are several types of conflict, such as jumping conflict, but you only want rising or foreshadowing conflict.

* No conflict can rise without perpetual exposition, which is transition. For example, a character going about his daily life doesn't suddenly become a NAZI, it happens in gradual steps--transition.

* Rising conflict, the product of exposition and transition, will ensure growth.

* Characters must conflict--there must be some polarity.

* Crisis will lead to climax. Climax will lead to conclusion.

* Dialogue should come from the voice of the character, not the writer.

Many TV, film, and novel plots and characters lack compelling conflict. The characters are just floating by... until something big happens. Lajos Egri illustrates how to change all this.
104 internautes sur 112 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Our Aristotle 19 novembre 2001
Par Mark Wieczorek - Publié sur
Egri's work is the only contender that I know of to Aristotle's "Poetics" for a guide to what makes good writing Good. Throw in Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with A Thousand Faces" and you have a sort of holy trilogy and trinity for writers. I've looked at some writing computer programs (haven't bought any yet), and many of them use one, or all of these methods. As an aside, I'll also throw in Polti as a source for plot. Not because I think he's very good, but because he's popular.
In Egri's world, character is king. Each of the characters, he states, must have a driving reason to be on stage, and their reasons must be diametrically opposed. In other words, they can't all get what they want - for one person to get what she wants, someone else must be deprived of their goal. Each character must also be desperate (desperate enough to be interesting) to get what he wants. (It's been a few years since I've read Egri, so please forgive my bad paraphrasing.)
Using many examples (some familiar, some unfamiliar) he gives you the tools to analyze plays (and all stories), and (therefore, hopefully) write plays, or stories, or novels, or movies... My girlfriend and I, even years after reading this book can't walk out of a movie theater or playhouse without analyzing it using the methods we learned from Egri.
If I were only able to reccomend one book to writers, this would be it. (Followed, of course, by Aristotle & Campbell). If I were to have all books erased from my memory and could only re-read one, this would be a strong contendor. If I could say only one thing to you, reader of this review, it would be read this book as soon as you can get your grubby hands on it.
41 internautes sur 43 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 I wish I had read this one first 19 février 2004
Par "gallanau" - Publié sur
Well, I read this book recently after reading god knows how many screenwriting books. Some of them are quite repetitive aren't they?! The thing that I've found is that there are a lot of books out there that explain the three-act structure by saying you have a set-up, then you have your turning points, your climax, your resolution blah blah blah. Thing is we all instinctively know we need this stuff in our plays and screenplays but what's hard as a writer is actually figuring out what these should be. What makes a good turning point, what makes a good resolution etc? If you want to find out, I strongly suggest you read this book.
I found this book (along with Robert McKee's 'Story') the most useful out of the many (screenwriting) books I've read because he gets into the nitty gritty hard stuff. He makes you think about how important the premise is. I disagree with some of the reviews of this book on this site that say that Egri says you have to know your premise from the outset, he doesn't say that, what he does say is that you have to know it clearly at some stage in writing your script and this is true because we go to films to find something out and all the pieces have to fit together or you'll say something like 'The second half of the movie dragged', 'Why did she do that? That wasn't in character' or 'The movie tried to prove too many points all at once' and so on.
The more I write scripts, the more I realise that it's all about planning and architecture because pacing is everything unlike novels etc.
In particular, the most useful takeout from this book is that your premise has to match your character and story. He goes into detail using 'A Doll's House' as an example. If Nora had been a different character, the resolution wouldn't have worked as well as it did and if the story happenings weren't chosen carefully based on her character, then the story wouldn't have rung true nor would we have understood what the premise is.
The other thing that I think you'll really like is the stuff on conflict, the different types of conflict and when to use a particular kind of conflict for the story you wish to tell.
I'm writing a script right now and this book encouraged me to be a bit more lateral and let go of the ideas I already had because they may not be the right situation for my main character or the story as is might not be the best vehicle for arguing the premise I want to argue.
Brilliant stuff! Written so long ago yet still so relevant.
42 internautes sur 47 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 WARNING: Modern classic -- scandalous edition 26 mai 2009
Par Whiplash Willy - Publié sur
Format:Poche|Achat authentifié par Amazon
This concerns the BN Publishing paperback edition from 2008, ISBN 978-9562915861:

The people at BN Publishing, may they roast forever in literary purgatory who ever they are, have a web site with the claim 'Improving People's Life'. They improved this playwrights classic by spacing lines and paragraphs the way we do it on the web: no indents, just a blank line between the paragraphs. Then they added some odd looking formatting of headings & sub-headings. Plus typos, typos and... typos. Here and there the lines also break in funny places across the page. It's all rather sad, sloppy and annoying, though no major crime, perhaps. What in my opinion is way beyond annoying... they have quietly REMOVED WHOLE SECTIONS of the original text -- in other words, chopped the thing up and decided what we don't need to read. Or, probably, how to make money... Shame on them. Just stay away, please.
Also available these days is the 1972 Touchstone Revised edition -- The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. That's got the text Egri wrote.
30 internautes sur 34 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Number One Playwriting Guide 12 décembre 1999
Par rareoopdvds - Publié sur
Lajos Egri's magnificent account and demonstrations of how to write a dramatic play is exciting and accurate. Citing master playwrites as Shakespeare, Moliere, Henrik Ibsen, and many others pointing out their high points and low points and how a play is to be constructed showing their commonalities among them. Starting at the root, and logically building up the story and characters to create a well developed play. Legri argues whether the action or the characters drive the play, it would seem the he believes that the characters are the driving force, however he also recognizes that they are one in the same, that a well developed character will alone create the action. Overall the book is presented well, easy to read and one will have a solid working knowledge to begin critiquing plays, as well as to get moving on their own stories. It would be advised to read the plays Legri refers to throughout the book, it will become more handy and points made clearer when he discusses those stories. Highly reccomended!
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